Bengaluru: With only five people per million being tested, India has one of the lowest coronavirus testing rates in the world and must scale up efforts by involving accredited private labs, said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson of Bengaluru-based Biocon Ltd and member of the working group communicating with the government on dealing with the current crisis. Major companies, whose employees travel, could chip in by testing staff, said Mazumdar-Shaw, a global influencer in biopharma, philanthropy and healthcare innovation. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why is the government not allowing private labs to test for Covid-19?

The government wanted to keep things under control as there will be panic and pandemonium about diagnostics, and everyone will queue up for testing. Then you will have companies, including fake ones, who will try and profiteer. We (a working group communicating with the Centre on the crisis comprising Dr Devi Shetty and others) are saying that it should be done systematically by first allowing NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) labs. This should be a prescription-based diagnostic model where a doctor asks a symptomatic person to be tested.

They (the Centre) are willing to work with the private sector and is already in the process of allowing it. We are all part of a working group and in touch with the Centre.

Is enough testing being done in India?

Of course, we have to up our testing rate as we are one of the lowest among countries. We are only testing about five per million while China, South Korea and Italy and others are doing it for a few thousands per million. So we are saying look, why don’t we fix a maximum retail price (MRP) like we’ve done for H1N1 testing and drugs, so that labs don’t take advantage of patients. Poor patients can be tested for free at government hospitals.

How should the government prioritize in such a situation?

It’s not just about the diagnostics now. We need to ensure adequate hospital beds in case it becomes a local contagion. The positive thing in India is that data is coming out every day. It’s also a good thing that out of the 141 cases, there are zero people in intensive care and 14 people have recovered. Now that is good news because that means to say that it’s almost becoming like a bad flu.

What other treatments are being used and proving useful?

In China, they are using convalescent plasma therapy, as it is assumed that the plasma of these recovered patients have got the antibodies to fight the virus. We are using anti-retroviral. Some report said that chloroquine phosphate, which is a malaria drug, is also effective against this virus.

Is the threat of community transmission looming large in India?

That’s why we need to test. The data right now suggests that there is no community spread because we are not seeing a large number of cases. I’ve been told that they are also doing random sampling now. This is probably why the government is saying that it hasn’t spread in the community. We (authorities) are quarantining travellers, check where the infection is coming from, as travellers from and to China became the carriers of the virus.

What can companies do to help?

We need more data. For instance, if all big companies such as Infosys, Biocon and Wipro, whose employees travel, test their staff to make sure their staff is coronavirus free, then that would be a lot of data. All the tech companies can pay and get testing done and if they share that 99% is negative, it will be a big boost for us. Tech companies can start by testing quarantined employees. I think we need to set up data analytics to give us that comfort that we are in a comfort zone. Otherwise everybody’s speculating and making incorrect forecasts.

What about the vaccines that are being tested?

They have just started the vaccine test and it will take a minimum one year to 18 months even if they do accelerated approval. There are three phases of clinical trials as you have to enrol patients, test them, collect data and then follow up. So you cannot say that it is working unless the person is free of that disease for one year. In the meantime, you’ll have to depend on treatment and social distancing.

What should be the long-term focus of governments?

To start focusing on science and investing more in research because now, nobody is bothered about it. We have got so many good scientists and we need to put them to good use. If we could have actually focused on research and innovation, we would have been confident of making our own vaccine. One Indo-US company has developed a novel diagnostic for Covid-19 but it has not been approved in India. Because our drug regulators are so scared to approve anything. We don’t have a research culture in this country. We are capable of developing new drugs, new therapies, new vaccines, but we’re not doing enough. The UK has opened up its doors to all those who are working on virology, viruses and vaccines and said that they will be hired immediately for research. Now, if we don’t keep our researchers back in India with good challenges and good opportunities, you will lose all of them.

We are the lowest-cost country in the world when it comes to medical drug prices like cancer and diabetes. But instead of appreciating that, the pharma sector is being crucified. Everybody expects the pharma sector to do everything for free and for social welfare. But we are an industry, have shareholders and have to run our businesses. How are we going to grow if everything has to be done at loss or without profit.

Does this situation provide an opportunity to this sector?

We were leaders in antibiotics but due to government and media pressure that we are charging so much, we stopped making them for the last 20 years and started to import from China. Today we are 100% dependent on China and they control prices. And we are so stupid, we just killed our industry because of media and government pressure. Let us use this opportunity to revive some of these industries, even if it costs more. Pharma companies are not criminals, they are actually saints.

You had tweeted about using CSR funds toward battling Covid-19?

Whoever wants to use CSR can use it but I cannot impose my view on everybody. The point is, how do we expand testing capacity? Do we have the capacity, labs for testing, enough hospital beds, ICUs and isolation chambers, among others. Companies can donate their CSR for testing but there are many other ways of dealing with this kind of capacity creation.

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